(October 14, 2008)

“Woman in Black” a White-Knuckle Ride

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

At key points during "The Woman in Black," the final production in Penguin Rep's 31st season, one of the actors snaps his fingers and the scene is set: Lights change, fog rolls in or sound effects take the audience to another place.

Those are some pretty powerful fingers.

"The Woman in Black" is an exceptional piece of theater, in the great tradition of spellbinding thrillers. It's nothing short of magical, drawing on all departments to deliver a completely entertaining 100 minutes.

This alchemy begins with two excellent actors: J.C. Hoyt and Tom Frey.

While credited as The Actor per the playwright's instructions, Hoyt appears as Arthur Kipps, a haunted man with a story "that must be told and laid to rest."

To that end, Kipps hires an actor (Tom Frey, credited as Kipps) to help shape the presentation he'll give to his family to answer their many questions.

Before long, The Actor is playing Kipps and Kipps is playing all of the characters he encountered in a twisting tale of specters and suspicions, dark looks and white-knuckle fear.

Hoyt shows a fine talent for voices and mannerisms, inhabiting no fewer than a half-dozen characters, each distinct and memorable, each haunted by what he has seen.

Frey, seen last season at Penguin in "Two Pianos, Four Hands" - which he also directed - is confident, forceful and all stiff-upper lip as The Actor who ends up playing Kipps. The lip quivers, however, when he is sucked into Kipps' ghost story.

The pace of "The Woman in Black" is brisk but not hurried, the sign of a company well-matched to the task at hand. Frey and Hoyt are first-rate storytellers, natural and without artifice. Their performances are lessons in simplicity and believability.

And, yes, there is a woman in black. As the title character, Anne Barrett makes the most of her entrances and exits - appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye.

Director Mark Shanahan spins a taut, brisk and compelling tale, aided in no small part by worthy accomplices handling sound, sets, lights and costumes.

Shanahan is on the faculty at Fordham University and appeared in "Tryst" at Westport Country Playhouse this summer, directed by Penguin's artistic director, Joe Brancato.

Joseph J. Egan's set - the backstage of a small, Victorian theatre, is appropriately strewn with old trunks, picture frames, ropes and ladders. And one upstage door.

Patricia E. Doherty's topcoats and morning coats and a few costume hats, go a long way to setting the scene.

Graham T. Posner's lights are integral to a spooky story and are well designed, although there are times when actors delivering lines from the extreme edges of downstage are too dimly lit.

Brandon Wolcott's sound design is so dramatic and effective that it well might be considered another character in the action. While the play is highly theatrical, and calls on an audience to buy in to the proceedings by drawing on its imagination, Wolcott's effects - expertly executed by Holly Caster - make this burden an easy one.

There's a reason that "The Woman in Black" has been running for 19 years in London's West End. Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of a 1983 Susan Hill horror novel is a riveting story. It's a total throwback to the days when audiences didn't have to have everything handed to them, when sitting in a darkened theater meant the start of an adventure, not the end of the thinking process.

Coincidentally and fittingly, director Shanahan appeared on Broadway in "The 39 Steps," another show that relies heavily on a solid quick-changing ensemble and an audience's willingness to imagine.

While "The 39 Steps" weaves together Alfred Hitchcock references in a reverential way, "The Woman in Black" is less removed from the original article.

The thriller ends a courageous and thought-provoking 31st season at Stony Point's Penguin Rep, including the sentimental "The Vows of Penelope Corelli," the thought-provoking "The Fall to Earth" starring Michele Pawk and the wickedly funny "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder." If you had a seat in the Bobbi Lewis Theater, you enjoyed a wild ride.

It'll be interesting to see what Brancato & Co. will bring to season 32 in the spring.

In the meantime, enjoy "The Woman in Black," a bona fide thriller, just in time for Halloween. It might be too scary for kids under, say, 12, but theater-loving teenagers would certainly enjoy it.

Call the box office immediately. Penguin is a tiny theater and this run will be over on Nov. 2. In the snap of your fingers.

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